Wildflowers beat bouquets; botones de oro me valen oro

Weeds spotted on the roadside,

picked on the return bike ride,

offered wilted in sweaty hand,

beats a bouquet from a foreign land.

Bring me no rose, emerald, or gold;

all I want from Colombia is you to hold.

Well, and our friend’s great coffee beans:

This is what simple joy to me means.

***********************************

Tres silvestres botones de oro

me valen más que minado oro,

esmeralda y plata.

Lo que nunca me falta

es la única exporta

de Colombia que me importa:

el café de nuestro amigo

(y tenerte acá conmigo).

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Converting into a coffee drinker and loosening Latin tongues

Today I love writing for the coffee industry, and I love coffee, but it’s not always been (bean?) like that. Like a good Catholic, it’s time to confess.

I had my first taste of coffee fourteen years ago. It was two in the morning during finals week, with twenty pages left to write. Like Ramen and Sriracha, coffee was one of those college-kid staples that didn’t click with me. My nebulous memory of that, and a handful of other desperate nights alone with a bulging coffeepot and blank screen, involved twitching fingers over the keyboard, a vow to never do that again, and a wow at the grade I pulled off. I owed it to coffee, but swore off caffeine and procrastination once I tossed my tasseled mortarboard.

Seven years passed calmly, without coffee, until I landed in Colombia, the land of coffee. I imbibed in the free-flowing firewater (aguardiente) that revelers poured into the shot glasses strung around my neck. I gnawed on gelatinous strips of deep-fried pork rind (chicharrón), pretending that the row of teeth looked more like a bear claw danish than an animal spine. I nibbled a razor-sharp Communion wafer (hostia) until I observed the true Catholics letting it dissolve on their tongue. This former teetotaler, vegetarian, and Christian was quickly, albeit temporarily, converting out of cultural respect and curiousity. But the very waft of coffee brought back a wave of nausea, tremors, and profound regret.

No soup for you, but two bowls for you

Colombians have an acutely accurate proverb to describe what was about to become my experience with coffee (ditto for loud partying, greasy meat, and Catholic churches): “Al que no le gusta el caldo, le dan dos tazas.” It’s the polar opposite of Seinfield’s Soup Nazi, where even if you love the soup, “no soup for you”: If you do not want any soup, you’re given two bowlfuls.

It was not a Colombian who introduced me to coffee done right; it was an Italian. I’m enamoured with Italy: the expressive language, the svelte fashion sense, the ten-course meals. The food and the wine, oh yes, but in all I’ve gleaned about Italy I somehow glossed over the essential role of the espresso.

I learned to take espresso because it was given to me by an Italian. Or rather, it was ordered. “Dos tintos,” barked my new boss over the phone to the office runner. I had no choice in the matter. Down in the kitchen the server had already offered me coffee a couple of times that week and I had politely declined, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee, but thank you.”

Now she stood in front of the executive desk with a silver platter and a glimmer in her dark eyes as she asked how many teaspoons of sugar I’d like. I followed the Italian’s lead and accepted it black. It appeared innocent in a dainty white porcelain cup, but I could catch the gleam of the heavy black liquid. The heady aroma reeked of past regrets.

Like dancing a tango, I followed the man’s lead. He sipped, in silence, savoring. Then it was my turn. It was unsavory, but I enjoyed the silence. The first swallow loosened the tongue. As he explained my role as the organization’s in-house translator between Spanish and English, I hoped my tongue would also navigate the explosive Zs and Chs of Italian.

Sipping and conversing, we were two foreigners united by Colombian coffee and a need for common ground: language. We did our best in Spanish, lapsing into mother tongues when necessary. Two cups clinked gently on saucers, two or three times and it was over. The discussion was done, the tinto was gone. I hadn’t even realized that I’d finished the entire espresso; time went by that fast. Entirely unlike the early dawn hours of caffeine-induced insomnia to meet deadlines.

My life lesson from Colombian coffee

Among the many factors that determine a pleasant gastronomic experience are the food or beverage itself–quality, portion, preparation–and the setting in which it’s consumed–company, occassion, ambience. My only experience with coffee had been drinking an entire pot of hastily-made, discount-priced drip grinds, all alone and under stressful circumstances. I had been doing it all wrong, on all counts.

Colombia taught me to enjoy tinteando, the art of solely savoring small portions of black coffee in pleasant company.

A couple of years after I learned to drink espresso, we also acquired a Nespresso Aeroccino and learned the art of making cappuccinos and the science of baking pastries, but that’s a whole nother story that involves a couple of pounds of over-indulged guilt (can you say, biscotti?).

Drinking American coffee after learning to tintear in Colombia

Would you like to supersize that?

Which brings me back to America. Exactly one year ago I returned to the United States, and knowing that we’d moved from abroad with nothing but heavy books and pounds of Colombian coffee, our landlady salvaged some perfectly good things the lazy former tenants had left to be tossed in the trash.

Useful item 1 is this ugly mug. Other than the garish green handle that clashes hideously with the red hide of some trophy hunter, what alarmed me was its size. Here it looms over a Café de Colombia pocillo, just big enough for a tinto.

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When you fill a mug that large with a hot beverage, you have to drink it all in one sitting, otherwise it gets ruined in the reheat cycle. Chugging that much coffee does a number on your system. Drinking the same amount, spread out over a couple of hours at work or socializing, is more tolerable. Apply the same rules of thumb to caffeine as with alcohol–small doses, over a long period, lots of water in between, and never by yourself.

I see café customer behavior as a major difference between the United States and Latin American, and even European culture. In the U.S., customers commonly order coffee to-go and in a disposable cup, then scald themselves trying to swig it while rushing down the sidewalk (and promptly file a lawsuit). No wonder we’re stressed-out: the caffeine is not to blame so much as the hectic (and wasteful) form of consuming it.

Don’t walk with coffee; talk with coffee.

In Latin American cafés (and so I hear, European cafés, and please share if anywhere else), drinking coffe is an idle and enjoyable affair. It’s a time to sit down to consume, to observe, to converse, to socialize. Coffee is sipped, not gulped, amid dialogue. Or it’s a natural break in the work day, but office kitchens are stocked with ceramic mugs and not styrofoam cups. How can anything be slowly savored out of an artificial container designed for speedy disposal?

If you are decidely a tea person, or have bad flashbacks of cramming at term time with coffee, I challenge you to try the attitude behind tinteando. Sip a well-crafted espresso in pleasant company. For you to have a conversion moment like mine, the coffee doesn’t have to be Colombian, and the company doesn’t have to be Italian. Heck, try it with Folgers and your best friend. But you must follow the Colombian pocillo portion and the Italian philosophy behind Slow Food. Ah, la dolce vita.

Gardening mysteries unraveling in March winds

My left thumb has been itchy lately. I’ve been yanking up scratchy thistle, and I got a bee sting there a couple days ago. Clearly (or dirtily) the left is the green thumb for gardening, following the rhyming logic that my right is for writing. After translating resources with clear instructions for sustainable agriculture with tropical crops like coffee and cacao, I walk into the wild unknown of my own subtropical kitchen garden.

Exploring gardening in Texas, during my first growing season here, is mostly a joyous experience of marveling at nature’s mysteries.

Just like in Manizales, seasons are thrown with gusto to the wind. It can feel like spring at dawn, summer all day long, and fall right before dusk…during a November winter.

Faithful to the start of the adage on March storms, tornado winds this week shredded my milk-jug-encased tomatoes straight down the middle of the stem, yet didn’t even tussle four-foot-tall arugula. The garlic in the middle of still-straight cilantro simply folded over because it’s time to ripen, tornado or not.

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Flowering arugula smells sweet like jasmine, as the leaves get ever more peanut-buttery potent. It’s an exhilaratingly sensorial confusion to nibble and sniff at the same time. Coffee flowers similarly remind me of jasmine, but peanut butter was the one American treat I always missed in coffee-growing countries. Arugula strangely straddles that rift in cultural cuisines.

This particular plant came out of a mystery pack of jumbled seeds from a garage sale, was the only one to bolt from two beds, and chose to do so right on the edge of the patio.

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Clover seeded last summer luckily flowered for St. Patrick’s Day and started to attract pollinating bees, but I got a bee sting all the way downtown at a Keep Denton Beautiful (beauty-full of flowering Redbuds) event. I hung up a birdhouse only for a wasp to make its nest.

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There’s no rhyme or reason to when roses appear, whether tended or ignored. Mint comes back with a vengeance if mowed over, but dies when gingerly transplanted. Tropical ginger couldn’t hack the dry Texas heat, but the coffee hasn’t given up.

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We were charged with babysitting someone’s special organic jalapeño seedlings potted in black gold soil compared to our backyard’s clay bricks, and each one died. Just regular seeds out of fruits from the Mexican market gave us 99% germination on bell peppers and habaneros that overwintered wonderfully. In Colombia we danced salsa; in Texas we grow salsa!

IMG_7454The greatest mystery lately has been what’s sprouting from the unfinished compost I spread over the beds when spring planting time arrived months earlier than expected. The compost from last fall’s garden held the remains of a couple of successfully sweet cantaloupes, several smashed pumpkins from the neighbors that go overboard for Halloween, a boatload of unripe watermelon from an early winter snap, and umpteen vine-borer-infested butternut squash.

Today I moved a mound of leaf bags and squashed underneath I found seedlings with seeds attached: they’re watermelon. But I firmly believe that some others are undefeated squash.

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As Masanobu Fukuoka expressed in The One-Straw Revolution, seemingly random growth is not wrong; it’s entirely natural.

Lil’ D limericks

If the Irish get kisses for wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, what would happen if everyone acted green the rest of the year? The earth will kiss us back and provide a home to sustain us for more years to come.

In celebration of sustainability, and in honor of the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” (I won’t, ’til the end) I have created my reader’s challenge of limericks for Denton, Texas on this St. Patrick’s Day.

May the Irish luck be with ye.

 

Even in Ireland they can hear Big Ben,

Tick-tick stick to schedule in London.

But this town’s downtown tower

doesn’t show the correct hour,

for life moves at a southern pace in ________.

 

Folks here are creative, always inventin’.

Raise backyard chickens, just keep ’em penned in.

Get your craft on at SCRAP.

Stand up, sing, dance, or rap.

Be original, stay ___________.

 

Two universities bring in the brains,

Metroplex growth with construction cranes.

A pity, given the proximity,

bad public transit to the city;

Yet at all hour we hear loud honking ________.

 

On second-hand loving Denton is keen.

Recycled gives books another chance to be seen.

Twice As Nice is a fab thrift store.

Habitat has paint, wood, and more.

Not just the Irish are proud to be _________.

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If you too love just about everything about living in Lil’ D, especially its freethinkin’ folks, but wish there were even more environmental initiatives, then send in your limerick answers* and sustainable suggestions in the comment box below.

Or submit your own limericks in homage to your hometown or adapted city!

To get thoughts rolling before pitching Big Ideas for Denton at Stoke next Monday, here’s a short list of my ideas for a greener Denton:

Alternative transportation

  • More commuter trains (A-train on weeknights, connection to Ft. Worth) and less frightfully noisy freight trains (plant more trees along the tracks as a sound barrier?)
  • Bicycle racks in front of stores. Some places (SCRAP, Ravelin Bakery) have let us bring our bikes inside, apologizing that the city doesn’t allow bikes to be parked outside.
  • Bike-awareness as a component of driver’s education and driver’s license renewal. Some drivers act openly aggressive toward cyclists, some only look for other cars before turning, and others are too busy on their phone to notice a bike until it’s too late.

Waste reduction

  • Weight sensors on the garbage trucks to charge each household by the amount of trash they generate each week. Water, electricity, and natural gas are based on consumption. It seems unfair to charge a flat rate to two houses, when one has an overflowing oversized garbage bin every week and another puts out a small bin every two weeks.
  • Biodegradable, green-tinted bags for yard waste to be composted, not landfilled. Neighborhood composters looking for leaves don’t know if the curbside stack of black garbage bags contains future soil or plastic trash.
  • Ban on leafblowers. Texas is windy, y’all. After an hour blowing the leaves to the other side of the street, the wind blows them right back. It’s pointless, loud, and wasteful. A rake does the job silently, efficiently, and using human power.

Food production

  • Farmers’ markets in northern and southern neighborhoods, just like banks have branches distributed across the city.
  • Incentives for homesteading similar to the programs in Kansas, to encourage organic farmers unable to afford the higher prices for smaller acreages.
  • Combat invasive weeds like Johnson grass with ground cover like clover (my white clover patch had perfect timing flowering today). Shamrocks for the win! ♣

Share your ideas, and we might all be lucky enough to have the city implement them.

*Are you one of those people who scatter Cheerios all over the breakfast table trying to look at the upside down answers to the word scramble on the back of the cereal box?

Please don’t spill my blog.

uǝǝɹƃ ‘suᴉɐɹʇ ‘ʇuǝpuǝdǝpuᴉ ‘uoʇuǝp :sɹǝʍsu∀

Denton unites at Black Film Festival

The Denton Black Film Festival has begun.

Last evening’s opening reception was centered around a multi-media art exhibit on Fruitvale Station, imagining if the victim’s unjust outcome could have been reversed.

At a time when Americans are wondering what the future holds for a nation divided by racism, let this festival bring us together to contemplate and unite through the seventh art.dbff-poster

Discover Denton is covering the event. Check out my reviews of a few films that will be screened this weekend:

Baseball provides life lessons in “Take Me Out”

“Priyanth” motivates through fear; “Rise Up” shows story of MLK and Malcolm X.

On Friday, January 27th I’ll be covering the conversation with storyteller and film director Ya’Ke Smith* at UNT on the Square. The 75-minute workshop starts at 3:30 pm and admission is free.

Hope to see you at the festival this week!

*Unfortunately, the Ya’Ke Smith workshop was cancelled at the last minute due to a family emergency. Instead, on Saturday night I captured fragments of flying poetry at the Spoken Word Open Mic, followed by the grand poetry slam. Words to inspire, analyze, and catalyze.